PG&E announced Monday that it had reached a settlement valued around $13.5 billion to compensate victims of wildfires in 2015, 2017, and 2018 that have been linked to the utility's equipment, as well as to families of the victims of the 2016 Ghost Ship warehouse fire in Oakland.
The settlement comes as PG&E attempts to emerge from bankruptcy, and a federal bankruptcy judge will still need to approve the settlement before it is final, as the Washington Post reports. Settlement money, once approved, will flow to those who lost loved ones or property in the 2015 Butte Fire, the 2017 Tubbs and Nuns fires, the 2018 Camp Fire, and the Ghost Ship blaze. In the case of the Tubbs and Ghost Ship fires, PG&E has not been definitively implicated for sparking the fires, though lawsuits from victims are pending against the utility in both cases. A spokesperson for PG&E said it still "does not admit fault" in either case, but it seems clear that the hope is that this settlement will lead to those lawsuits being abandoned.
It's still unclear how the funds will be distributed and when. As the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat reports, there are between 35,000 and 60,000 wildfire victims who could be eligible for compensation. If the funds were distributed evenly (which they won't be), that would mean payouts of between $225,000 and $387,000 apiece. Victims have until the end of the year to file claims.
In a statement released Friday, PG&E's CEO and President Bill Johnson said, "We want to help our customers, our neighbors and our friends in those impacted areas recover and rebuild after these tragic wildfires."
Once claims are settled, PG&E will be eligible to access a $21 billion state wildfire fund — and the deadline for accessing it is June 30, by which point all third-party claims must be settled. As the Press-Democrat reports, this latest settlement for victims comes after separate settlements PG&E has struck with insurance companies and local governments. The utility has agreed to pay $11 billion to insurers who already paid out claims from the wildfires, and $415 million to about a dozen municipalities in the North Bay including Santa Rosa.
Johnson was careful to acknowledge the many recent calls to break up PG&E and/or make it publicly owned, following several years of wildfires caused by its decaying infrastructure. "PG&E’s leadership team has heard those calls for change, and we realize we need to do even more to be a different company now and in the future," Johnson said in his statement. "We recognize we need to deliver safe and reliable energy service every single day — we’re determined to do just that."
Robert Julian, a lawyer from the San Francisco firm BakerHostetler that is representing victims, said in a statement to the Washington Post, "We are pleased that PG&E has finally admitted that the victims’ losses exceed $13.5 billion, and that PG&E is responsible."
Notably, this settlement does not address victims of the Kincade Fire that broke out in October. If it is determined that PG&E's equipment was responsible for that blaze, victims will have to seek compensation from a different, future fund.
Governor Gavin Newsom continues to call for changes to PG&E, though it's unclear what those changes will look like — the Post points out that his campaign for governor received "hundreds of thousands of dollars" in contributions from PG&E and its employees. "PG&E, as we know it, cannot persist and continue,” Newsom said in November. “Everybody objectively acknowledges and agrees with that. It has to be completely transformed.”